It’s the anniversary of the death of a poet whose work I have been familiar with since toddlerhood. When I think of the poet, the famous Persian Omar Khayyam, I am back in the caring arms of a grandmother, swept back to probably well before my second birthday.

Image of part of  a Sailing to Purgatory webpage to illustrate the article.
Thou beside me ... An artist imagines the poet is a setting that featured often in his verse. Thanks to Wikipedia for the picture.
My maternal grandmother, the daughter of a seafaring Cowes family, was a retired headteacher who took education seriously, very, and perhaps no subject more so perhaps than verse.

Before I could string many sentences together, I could certainly recite some lines from Omar’s The Rubaiyat which was obviously a great favourite with my grandmother.

In many ways it is surprising that I would recite just a number of lines of that long poem, especially as memory recalls her lying in bed – she was no athlete – reeling off all the Rubaiyat’s many, many verses, from i in Roman numerals to ci.

Quite a character

She was quite a character who seemed to share the mathematician-poet’s feeling about a drop of wine.

My parents were not keen drinkers in those end-of-the-war days. Rationing certainly would have made it difficult.

Memory has an image of her climbing into a taxi and expressing surprise to find she still had a glass of whisky in her hand.

One of the strongest memories from my junior days has her battling a huge poisonous snake, clubbing the thing with her walking stick in the road beside a public seat that is still there in Gardens, Southampton, saving mother and two sons from a ghastly death.

Later in life, I realised that the vicious monster must have been a harmless grass snake unlucky enough to slide along at quite the wrong moment.

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

I travelled through Persia, Iran, very many years later, but I don’t recall seeing one Persian sipping from a glass of wine ... nor anything alcoholic.

Extraordinary mathematician

The extraordinary mathematician worked in an observatory where he eventually succeeded in precisely measuring the length of the year, leading to the development of the new Jalali calendar, which was used until the 20th century.

His observations and the subsequent calendar was based on the sun's movement. His calendar showed 25 years containing 365 days and eight leap years with 366 days.

In the West, however, it is Khayyam’s work as a poet and his collection of quatrains that is recognised and celebrated. The poems, written in four lines, were translated by Edward FitzGerald in the 1800’s and published as The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.

He was born on 18th May, 1048; and died aged 83 on 4th December, 1131.

The lines that I would recite as a toddler ...

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

Ah, my Belov'ed fill the Cup that clears
To-day Past Regrets and Future Fears:
To-morrow! — Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday's Sev'n Thousand Years.

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The Independent: Omar Khayyam

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